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A cultural destination: Community arts center reopens after expansion

The Jan Dempsey Community Arts Center reopened to the public in March following renovations and an expansion.

From potters and painters to dancers and actors, the Auburn arts community is celebrating a return to its home at the Jan Dempsey Community Arts Center.

The arts center on East Drake Avenue closed for construction in January 2023 and reopened in March after an extensive renovation and expansion. The existing building was updated and reconfigured to maximize space, and an 8,000-square-foot addition was constructed.

The finished product includes a new home for the City’s ceramics studio along with a new art gallery and dance studio, an added dressing room for theater performances, a patio for outdoor art creation and more. This reimagined space brings all of Parks and Recreation’s cultural offerings under one roof for the first time.

Cultural Arts Director Sara Hand Custer says the finished product is the culmination of years of dreaming and planning.

A new home for the ceramics studio

Since it first opened in 1999, the center has always housed an art gallery and classroom space, but the City’s ceramics studio has been off-site since its inception. Parks and Recreation’s ceramics programs were initially held at East Samford School. As the school system continued to grow, the studio relocated to Dean Road Recreation Center.

Sara joined the Parks and Recreation Department in 2007 as an art education specialist. A trained ceramics artist, she came with a vision for upgrading the studio, which was mostly offering paint-your-own pottery classes. With the help of donations, she was able to outfit the studio with pottery wheels, tables, hand-building equipment and a few other essentials to begin transforming the space into a professional studio.

The Dean Road Ceramics Studio initially consisted of one small room with a kiln in a closet. Over the last 17 years, it expanded into another classroom, but the interest in ceramics programming continued to balloon. That interest was the catalyst for the arts center expansion.

“The cool thing about ceramics is you can go from ages 4 to 99 — we’re really catering to the whole community,” said Emillie Dombrowski, Parks and Recreation’s art education specialist. “Particularly since the pandemic, the demand for ceramics classes has skyrocketed, and we haven’t had enough space to meet the growing interest.”

The new studio not only expanded the amount of space available for ceramics programming, but it provides versatility that wasn’t a possibility at Dean Road. Before, they could only accommodate up to seven pottery wheels at a time. That has more than doubled in the new space, which has a capacity for 20 wheels.

At Dean Road, there was one room for hand-building and one for wheel-throwing. In the new space, there are two significantly larger rooms that are more versatile and can accommodate both hand-building and wheel-throwing classes simultaneously.

Parks and Recreation offers an independent studio membership for ceramics artists, and there was only room for about 25 memberships at Dean Road. The new space has opened that availability up to 50 artists. A large kiln with a higher firing capacity was added to the studio, bringing the total number of kilns to five.

Building the new studio from scratch allowed staff to create a safer and more efficient space specifically designed for the needs of a ceramics studio. A drainage system was installed under both studio rooms with grates that allow for easy floor cleanup. There is a dedicated glaze mixing room with a ventilation system to help reduce the exposure to chemicals and elements used in the mixing process. And the dedicated kiln room is equipped with adjustable ventilation hoods to help speed up the cooling process, helping sustain the quality of the kilns.

An improved space for all arts lovers

Along with more space for creating, the renovated arts center has dedicated space for showcasing art. The new art gallery has an upgraded track hanging system and lighting, making it easier for partners like the Auburn Arts Association to professionally display art exhibitions. The former children’s gallery will now function as a second gallery that artists can rent to display their own shows. A track hanging system was installed in the hallway, transforming the cement block facade into another avenue to showcase art.

Next to the art gallery is a brand-new dance studio — the first dedicated space for dance classes in a Parks and Recreation facility. Beginning with the spring quarter, Parks and Recreation is now able to expand the number and variety of dance classes offerings. The new dance studio also means the Auburn Area Community Theatre will no longer have to share the performance room, giving them more flexibility for working on their productions. A new dressing room was added to the performance room along with a fresh coat of paint and refinished floors.

Expanded space = expanded reach

While they look forward to welcoming back familiar faces, Sara and Emillie see the new space as an opportunity to bring together even more of the arts community and those interested in getting involved.

“With this expansion, we can really think of the Jan Dempsey Community Arts Center as a cultural destination for our region,” Sara said. “We want to invite other arts organizations to be a part of our art center and foster those symbiotic relationships that help us build up the arts here in Auburn.”

Along with the traditional classes they’re known for offering, the arts center hopes to host more workshops and artist demonstrations that the community can participate in without having to commit to weeks-long classes. Each piece of the upgraded facility will have a hand in improving and elevating the center’s summer art camps.

“Not only did we expand our building, but we’re expanding our reach back out into the community,” Emillie added.

All of this just touches the surface of what the Jan Dempsey Community Arts Center does year-round. To learn more about upcoming events and programs, visit If you’re interested in seeing the new space, Sara invites the community to pop in – they’d love to show you around.

Former Auburn Mayor Jan Dempsey (left) and current Auburn Mayor Ron Anders (right) reveal a plaque commemorating the arts center expansion and renovation at a ceremony on March 27, 2024.

Plaque ceremony attendees look at artwork displayed in the hallway.

Parks and Recreation Director Alison Hall (left), Arts Education Specialist Emillie Dombrowski (center) and Cultural Arts Director Sara Hand Custer (right) pose in front of the new plaque commemorating the expansion and addition at a ceremony on March 27, 2024.